On January 13, the Omicron case numbers peaked in the United States, as have, apparently, the hospitalization and death rates. Is this the end of COVID-19, or is there more to come?
The Omicron variant is one of the most infective pandemic viruses in decades. Emerging in southern Africa, it moved like wildfire across the globe in record time. As more information was gained, experts grew to believe with greater confidence that it was relatively mild compared to other SARS-CoV-2 strains and that it will probably inoculate people against different versions of the virus.
However, despite improving models, experts underestimated how rapidly the virus spread. It was thought that Omicron would peak in the United States near the end of January. Instead, daily cases rose to a seven-day average of 814,000 on January 13 and have dropped sharply ever since. With its current trajectory, the wave – and possibly the entire pandemic – will be over before mid-February.
Despite the daily cases being five times greater than the Delta wave, the daily deaths topped out at a lower number. Preliminary data shows that hospitalization crested in the week ending January 8, again less than any previous wave. Many of the people counted in this statistic were admitted for other reasons but tested positive for COVID-19 in the hospital.
The sharp decline in infection rate signifies the population is reaching herd immunity. A common misconception is that this means everyone is protected or almost no one is infected. Instead, herd immunity is achieved when the reproduction number, or R, is less than or equal to one. If a person gets the virus, R tells us how many people that person will likely infect. The sharp decline in new cases is consistent with herd immunity.
That may be good news. A new paper in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report finds that people who have had COVID-19 have a high level of ongoing natural immunity that matches the effectiveness of the vaccines.
An early report from a Cyprus lab claimed that Omicron had mutated and recombined with Delta to form a “Deltacron” variant. However, most experts reject this as exceedingly unlikely and attribute the finding to lab contamination, which is not uncommon. The proposed mutant has not been verified by any other facility and is likely a false alarm.
Recombination does occur in nature, of course, but it is rare. Replacement is a far more common path, and Omicron is well on its way to rendering all other COVID-19 variants extinct. Therefore, when herd immunity ends the wave, SARS-CoV-2 is likely to join the ranks of the seasonal flu: deadly to relatively few, but a mere nuisance to the rest.
Politicians and bureaucrats in many countries are waking up to this fact. The U.K., Norway, and Denmark recently announced that they will reduce or eliminate mandates and restrictions. The People’s Health Institute of Norway (F.H.I.) also said that it does not know if the benefits of a third vaccine booster dose for people under 45 outweigh the risks of side effects.
The World Health Organization has also taken a more relaxed view. It recently announced that it is time to end COVID-19 restrictions and calls travel bans “ineffective.” There are still some holdouts that remain on high alert. Germany has said that it will keep its mandates despite the mildness of Omicron. However, in most places, the tide is turning. Panic is yielding to acceptance, and the world is slowly returning to normal.
~ Read more from Caroline Adana.